Two and a half hours.
That’s about how long it takes to fly nonstop from Atlanta to New York City. It’s also how long it took me to travel from Duluth to Marietta on metro Atlanta’s public transit systems.
Is this the best that a world-class city can do?
Voters rejected a transportation sales tax last year that would have funded $3.5 billion worth of transit projects. Since there’s no money available for a major transit expansion, the conversation about metro transit has shifted to improved coordination.
State Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, who heads a Senate subcommittee on public transit, says voters need to see community leaders using existing funds wisely before they agree to hand over more of their money. He is leading an effort to streamline the four separate transit systems.
Over the summer, Beach created a video documenting a transit journey from Kennesaw to Gwinnett Arena in Duluth to show how unreasonably long it takes. His trip clocked in at a whopping three hours, 35 minutes.
Our test trip
Inspired by his effort, I decided to embark on my own public transit trek from Gwinnett Place Mall in Duluth to the Marietta Transfer Center. My aim wasn’t just to be a human stopwatch or a secret shopper. It was to interact with folks who use the system every day and gather their perceptions of how it works (or doesn’t).
Before I even set foot on a bus, the problems created by having separate transit systems became obvious. I had to visit three websites just to map a route.
And those routes are far from direct. Often, you can’t get from Point A to Point B without having to pass through Points X, Y and Z. That’s because the primary purpose of the bus systems in Cobb and Gwinnett is to funnel suburban riders to downtown Atlanta and back. So if you need to travel east-west, you still get routed through downtown.
That meant I would have to take a Gwinnett County Transit bus to the Doraville MARTA station, catch the southbound train to the transfer center at Arts Center Station in Midtown, and then board a Cobb County Transit bus heading back north to Marietta.
Another hiccup I encountered: how to pay. I already had a Breeze card. But it was loaded with MARTA trips and not a “stored value” of cash for non-MARTA trips.
Cobb and Gwinnett buses, as well as Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, accept Breeze cards, but having to add stored value on the card is a pain. If you forget to do it online before you go, you have to wait to load up your card at the MARTA station. That isn’t helpful when your starting point isn’t a MARTA stop.
There was no way to pay via credit card or smartphone. The only other option was to pay cash for the $2.50 bus fare.
However, as I stepped on Gwinnett bus 10A, the driver politely rejected my $20 bill and asked, “Do you have anything smaller?” He said the buses only accept exact change. Fortunately, I was able to dig a few dollars and quarters out of my wallet.
By the time we pulled out of the traffic circle that comprises the Gwinnett Transit station, the bus was six minutes behind schedule.
Timeliness was a key complaint among Gwinnett transit passengers like Wade Barbee, a 54-year-old military veteran who travels from Duluth to the VA Hospital in Decatur for treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. He and several other passengers said Gwinnett Transit buses are chronically off-schedule.
Barbee said he usually is forced to wait for an hour in Doraville because he’s missed a connecting bus. He said he thinks the buses should run every 15 minutes, not every hour as they do at some points during the day.
“It’s just messed up,” Barbee said. “The drivers always say, ‘Talk to the county, talk to the county, they are the ones making the bus schedules up.’”
Mike Bass, 24, who was headed to a job interview in Sandy Springs, usually allocates half a day to get anywhere on public transit from his Norcross home. There are no pit stops if you have to use the bathroom. And Bass, like Barbee, often waits an hour between transfers. Neither of the men had access to a car.
Fifty-six minutes after we left Duluth, our bus pulled into the Doraville MARTA station. Standing in line to load my Breeze card, I heard the waiting train slide away from the platform. I caught the next one 15 minutes later.
I sat beside Ric Jilla as the MARTA train whisked us past a car-clogged interstate. The 33-year-old bartender from Doraville juggles jobs at a downtown hotel and at a restaurant in Dunwoody.
Even though he owns a car, Jilla prefers to take MARTA. He said MARTA seems to operate well and on time, but the area transit system as a whole needs to be simplified. It’s too confusing even for metro residents, not to mention tourists, he said.
“I run into them all the time where they’ll be lost or asking questions because they got on the wrong bus or the wrong train,” Jilla said.
As Jilla and I were talking, I got a text from my editor. He had dropped off a photographer, videographer and me at our starting point before driving to meet us at the Marietta Transfer Center. It was a little over an hour into our trip, and he was already there. We weren’t even halfway.
The last leg of the journey on Cobb Transit bus 10 seemed the longest, maybe because it was peppered with stops going up Cobb Parkway.
That’s where I met Charles Brown, 51, who was just coming off a 14-hour shift as a security guard at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta.
Brown was bus-bound because his car’s fuel pump was broken. He said he usually rides a Cobb Transit Xpress coach bus from downtown Atlanta to his home in Marietta. It’s faster because it bypasses mid-range stops and gets him in the door every day at 8:31 a.m. But because he got off a few hours later than usual, the Xpress bus was no longer running and he had to catch a local transit bus instead.
His main criticism of the Cobb Transit system is that bus service isn’t available on Sundays or holidays. That’s a real problem for people who need to run errands, access weekend jobs or attend religious services.
How we see it
Overall, my impression was that the three transit systems function well within their own silos. Each train or bus was almost full (MARTA was nearly empty at Doraville, but it filled up as it approached Midtown). The passengers were well-behaved. The conveyances were clean. Timeliness was an issue only with the Gwinnett bus, but even that was a short delay.
What stuck in my craw was the total time for the trip.
Traffic is a soul-sucking grind for the average Atlanta driver, where a commute of 30 minutes to an hour is the norm. But transit riders, about 40 percent of whom don’t have access to a car according to the Atlanta Regional Commission, face regular commutes of up to two or three hours to travel similar distances.
I came away with the conclusion that Atlanta’s public transit service is fractured and clumsily coordinated. We can do better.
Agency/ Year started / Number of passenger trips in 2012 / Annual budget
Cobb County Transit / 1989/ 4 million / $18 million
Gwinnett County Transit / 2001 / 2 million / $7.43 million
MARTA / 1971 / 135 million / $857 million
GRTA / 2004 / 2.4 million / $21.6 million
Source: each respective agency
Noise level: A
COBB COUNTY TRANSIT
Noise level: D